Christian Platonism

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Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.

Another analogy is to intoxication.   If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.

But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.

Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?

In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]

While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.

Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.

Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?

Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.

Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.

Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.

Q: And the spiritual aspect?

The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.

In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.

In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.

Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.

So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.

Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?

Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.

Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.

Q: Is Platonism for everybody?

Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.

Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?

First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.

For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.

Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.

After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.

Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.

Related:  Reading Plato’s Republic as Psychology

 

References

Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

 

Catholicism and Transcendentalism: The Christian Consciousness

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Christian Consciousness 280x280The important 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples) called for, among other things, a new transcendental humanism (§16, §20). In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, renewed the call for “a new, integral and transcendent humanism.”

Precisely such a transcendental humanism can be found articulated with great depth, insight, and beauty in the literature of the 19th century American Transcendentalists and Unitarians, many of whom were Christian. I believe that modern Roman Catholics would do well to examine this literature.  It is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration, and the ‘old religion’ expressed in a form uniquely suited to the American mind.

As an example, below are excerpts from an 1859 discourse by Octavius B. Frothingham, ‘The Christian Consciousness, Its Elements and Expression’.  (O. B. Frothingham, Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia, 1859; pp. 3—33).

* * * *

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. (John 15:5a)

“HAVE you ever fairly mastered this thought: That once upon a time, eighteen hundred years ago, what we call Christianity was all gathered up in the person of a single man, who lived and breathed like other men, in the far-off land of Judea, — when Christ was Christianity, and all the Christianity there was on earth? … In that remote corner of the earth, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone, uncomprehended by the few who love him, despised or feared by the few who love him not, unheeded by the many who see in him nothing by which he can be distinguished from common humanity; solitary in person, and solitary in spirit, having little in common with his generation; solitary, with his great Religion folded in the secret place of his own heart. The mighty Truths which the world hail as revelations and build up into confessions, are his private thoughts. The creative forces which have wrought such moral results, and even something like a transformation in the sentiments of the most elevated portion of mankind, are the silent affections of his heart. The regenerating principles which have effected so much towards the growth of a new order of humanity, are the deep convictions of his individual conscience; and profoundly hidden in the experiences of his soul, are the spiritual laws that have since purified the piety and re-constructed the worship of millions of men. In that one peculiar being, as in a seed, [Christendom lies latent.] … The seed fulfils the conditions of all growth. It falls into the ground and dies.

“Ere long the fruit it was to bear, begins to appear. Little clusters of people like grapes on a vine are found in cities both near and remote from the place where he lived. They cling to each other. They grow together as if united by a common life, and attract the notice of all men by the singularity of their worship and behavior…. To them existence is not what it was; the world is not what it was; new thoughts occupy their minds; fresh affections, making old things seem distasteful, are yearning after congenial intercourse; an awakened moral sense abhors the practices in which they had before innocently engaged, and makes another order of the world necessary to their peace and satisfaction; strange hopes have taken hold on their souls; strange aspirations and purposes, which have altered their whole attitude towards their generation. They are one in the sympathy of a common Faith, Hope, and Charity. And what has begotten in these people, this new and singular spirit? They have seen, heard, conversed with, the men to whom this Jesus had communicated himself through some subtle influence which they could neither explain to themselves nor to others. They had no insight into his motives or intentions. Up to the very last hour of his life, they indulged a hope, which all his life long he had been laboring to dispel. His immortal ideas they failed to grasp, while they clung to his less significant words with a tenacity that nothing could loose. Yet, through all their stupidity and prejudice, his spirit had found its way to theirs. His being had bathed them like an atmosphere; had refreshed them like another climate. His character had shed itself like an aroma from his person, and penetrated invisibly to their natures’ roots. The mild radiance of his presence, the beaming of his face, the glance of his eye, the accents of his voice interpreting to their hearts words which their understanding could not apprehend, the indescribable serenity of his mien, so holy and so gracious, all expressed and imparted the spiritual life that was in him, so that when he died, that life was in various forms reproduced in those that knew him, according to their degree of susceptibility. And these, again, borne like seeds on the breath of the Spirit, spread the divine contagion even to distant lands, and made the attributes of the inward Christ visible in multitudes of communions, some of which knew him not, even by name.

“You will understand now what I mean by saying that Christianity was LIVED into the world. It was not built up by any skill in organizing establishments. It was not planted by sheer force of authoritative teaching. Men were not drilled into it, nor indoctrinated into it; they were BORN into it. It came to them as inspiration comes, and the effect of its coming was a new CONSCIOUSNESS, a new motive force, an original stamp of mind, and style of character. In a word, there was another life in the race….

“Christianity, let me repeat, was LIVED into the world. As a life, it reproduced and extended itself.   Its tendency, at least, nowhere completely fulfilled, it is true, but everywhere pushing against the obstacles in its path, was to re-animate and re-construct human relations….

“We have heard much lately about the Christian ‘CONSCIOUSNESS,’ as distinct from particular forms of belief or modes of thought; a general state of mind and affection that belongs to all genuine Christians alike, the partaking of which makes one a Christian, the lack of which makes one to be not a Christian; a prevailing and determining spirit, which, having the hidings of its power far down among the roots of human nature, distributes a secret but vital and quickening influence all through the substance of the moral and spiritual being, and diffuses abroad an aroma too delicate to be caught and imprisoned in symbolical books and sacred confessions, yet powerful enough to impress every spiritual sense and stimulate every spiritual desire. I believe there is such a spiritual Consciousness, common to all Christians, and distinguishing them from all who are not Christians more clearly than divines have ever succeeded in doing, while, at the same time, it prevents Christians, however artificially divided among themselves, from falling out finally with one another; a spiritual Consciousness which is nothing more or less than the mind of Jesus organizing itself in humanity….

“These are thoughts, vast, deep, shadowy. They are not dogmas; they are not opinions. They are spoiled and clipped by logical definition. They are spiritual truths, addressing themselves to the higher reason, which each may define for himself who can, or may innocently leave in the indistinctness which the soul best loves. They are inferences from what the Christian regards not as a notion but as a fact, a fact of inward assurance, a great conviction, that abides as a cornerstone, immovable in the deep soil of his heart. They are his translation into thought of a feeling that is deeper than all thought and runs before it.”

* * * *

One must read this material selectively. Along with sublime thoughts are a few prejudices and errors – many American Transcendentalists and Unitarians rejected, along with the harsh doctrines of Calvinism (from whence these movements evolved), many fine and noble elements of traditional Christianity.  For example, Frothingham writes,

“Put the intervening centuries by. Let your imaginations brush away, like so much dust on a window-pane, the vast Church that stands between you and him. Disappear, pope, cardinal, and priest; cathedral, chapel, shrine, altar, vestments, symbol, cross and goblet, keys and dove; vanish, creeds of every complexion, sects of every name.”

That is, in his appeal to  readers that they consult directly their Reason, Conscience, and intuitions for direct evidences of God, he goes further to question the validity of certain external forms of religion.  But remember that if we demand perfection of our saints, we shall have no saints. Despite certain prejudices, many of which are understandable if one considers the historical context, there is much that is saintly in these writings.

This caveat notwithstanding, there are times reading this literature that I am struck with a conviction that, in it, the prisca theologia, the ancient and venerable religion, reached its highest level of literary expression, before the radical materialism of the 20th century eclipsed the spiritual senses.  It remains there, providential, evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, for us to consult and build upon.

This Old World religion, brought by the Puritans to New England and developed in the rich soil of village life in colonial America, I recognize as the same spiritual tradition in essence and fundamentals that was transmitted to me by Catholic sisters and priests at the parochial schools I attended as a child.

I should certainly try to follow up this post with more detail about the 19th century American Christian Transcendentalists and Unitarians.  One note of general interest to add here is that there is a direct literary and ideological connection between these writers and the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century.  Besides Frothingham, some names of particular interest are William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Francis Henry Hedge, and Abiel A. Livermore; but there are dozens more.

Additional Readings

Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England. New York: Putnam, 1876.

Gardiner, Harold C. (Ed.). American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Cambridge Platonists of Old and New England. Church History, 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470-485. Reprinted as Ch. 7, ‘The Platonic Quest in New England’ in: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self, 189-211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997).

Livermore, Abiel A. Discourses. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1854.

Wells, Ronald V. Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge. Columbia University Press, 1943.

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